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The Psychology of Disneyland
From Walt Disney's original vision to Imagineering to pricing strategy.
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Today’s newsletter goes deep on all things Disneyland (psychology, design, history, business breakdown).
Also this week:
James Cameron, explained
And them fire tweets (including one on Montreal)
I checked off a parenting milestone last weekend: my wife and I took our 5-year old son to Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
We may have jumped the gun because my kid doesn’t have any affinity for Disney and has only seen one film from its library (Pixar’s Cars). We always knew we would have to take him eventually. But we thought it would be after he watched the entire Disney canon at around 11 or 12 years old and forced our hand.
Still, we made the trek.
We waited in long lines. We got scorched by the sun (I didn’t do us any favours by being hungover). We bought overpriced bottles of water and random swag (hello, Misting Spray Fan for $30). And I legit chuckled every time a Disney employee rang up a bill, as I did the gross margin calculation in my head (the margins are the opposite of low).
You know what, though? My memories of Disneyland since then have been incredibly positive and we plan on going back.
The “Happiest Place on Earth” got me. It got me!
To understand how, let’s look at:
The beginning of Disneyland
Imagineering and the psychology of park design
How Parks fit into the Disney empire
The beginning of Disneyland
The year is 1954.
Walt Disney is 52-years old, a pioneer of film and animation with some of the most classic Hollywood works under his belt: Steamboat Willie (1928), Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), Bambi (1942), Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953).
With so much success, Walt had tired of the Hollywood studio life while his older brother Roy — who co-founded The Walt Disney Company in 1923 — ran daily operations.
Walt was a world-builder and wanted to use his capital, reputation and creative energy to create the next big thing: a theme park.
Why? There were a few reasons as detailed in Neal Gabler’s 2006 book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.
Firstly, Walt had been unimpressed by the many amusement parks he visited with his daughters over the years. The amusement park concept had taken off in America at the turn of the 20th century in Coney Island, New York. In the following decades, the attractions remained the same: thrill rides and games. Disney was turned off by the dirtiness of a typical amusement park and hated how operators tricked guests (or “marks” as they called them) into rigged park games.
Secondly, Walt was a pioneer in adapting storytelling techniques to new mediums (animation, film, and TV), and the physical world seemed like the next logical step. His park would not only be for entertainment; it would be for immersing visitors into entire worlds.
Thirdly, he wanted to build something that was alive. A film or TV episode is done when it’s done. A park can always be improved and updated. Walt — who worked on Disneyland until he died in 1966 — said of his theme park project, “Disneyland…will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world”.
To make his dream a reality, Walt tapped professionals from the Stanford Research Institute and sent his team around the world to find the best ideas.
[Even if] there was no antecedent, in its planning the park had been the beneficiary of a host of forces and influences—the Edenic European gardens, like Tivoli, that Walt had visited; the expositions and fairs, like the Century of Progress in Chicago in 1933, the New York World’s Fair in 1939, and even the Chicago Railroad Fair; historical re-creations, like Knott’s Berry Farm, Greenfield Village, and Colonial Williamsburg, all of which Walt had seen and enjoyed; and, what may have been the most important influence of all, California architecture itself.
Walt was born in Chicago and grew up on a rural farm in Missouri. In his early-20s, he moved to California, and the influence of the state on Disneyland is understandable when one considers the region's geographic diversity.
In 1927, Paramount Studios created a famous map of California that showed how different parts of the state could be used as stand-ins for filming sites from all over the world.
Below is a photo of a map and an image from cartographer Peter Atwood, who overlaid on-the-ground photos of each location (e.g., Southern California is "Spain", the Nevada border is "Wyoming Cattle Ranches", the coast near LA is "Venice").
Having one type of setting next to a completely different type of setting is not unlike what Disneyland would become with neighbouring worlds all occupying one plot of land.
Walt's plan for Disneyland was truly ambitious, and most amusement park veterans scoffed at the idea. However, Walt was undeterred and ultimately chose people from within his Disney empire to complete the project. This approach worked because Walt's team understood the power of Disney intellectual property (IP) and storytelling.
The skepticism from “experts” also meant that traditional lenders wouldn’t touch the project.
“I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible,” Disney once remarked. “Because dreams offer too little collateral.” (Walt could have easily SPAC’d the idea in 2021).
Among film moguls, Walt was the first to recognize the potential of the small screen and he struck a genius partnership with ABC in the early 1950s to fund his park.
The TV network desperately needed content to compete with CBS and NBC. Walt agreed to a 3-year deal to make shows for ABC if the network would:
Pay for the production of the shows
Buy $2m worth of a 10-year bond
Guarantee a $4.5m bank loan
Walt diverted ~$5m ($53m in 2023) of the funds to build Disneyland. The budget eventually ballooned to ~$17m ($182m), which Walt financed with his own funds, park sponsorships and additional help from ABC (Walt’s shows — including one he hosted called “Disneyland” — were smash hits).
On July 14th, 1954, Walt broke ground on a plot of land in Orange County for his future theme park. The area was chosen for its affordability (outside of Los Angeles), its mix of weather (low rainfall and low humidity), and its infrastructure (which was good for transportation).
Disney gave his team a one-year deadline to build a park with five themed worlds. The first version of Disneyland combined American nostalgia and heritage (Fantasyland, Main Street USA, Frontierland) with excitement and visions of the future (Adventureland, Tomorrowland).
There was something for kids and parents alike.
Having set up a new company — separate from the studio — to create Disneyland, Walt had total control over all decisions. He regularly walked and inspected every inch of the park.
Disneyland officially opened to the public on July 17, 1955, a year after Disney’s self-imposed deadline. The first day was mayhem. Nearly 30k guests descended on the park. There was a massive traffic jam. Long lines everywhere. A lack of water. Unfinished attractions.
The early snafus proved to be a minor speed bump. The one-millionth guest visited Disneyland just two months after its opening. Disney had built his world in the physical world and guests loved it, as explained by Gabler.
The reason the visitors felt so good…was that Walt Disney had painstakingly conceived of his park as ordered and harmonious. Disneyland had no ambiguity, no contradictions, and no dissonance. The layout and the way guests were subtly directed to destinations, the cleanliness, the efficiency with which crowds were queued up to wait for attractions, the weather, even the sounds of the park—all contributed to a sense of absolute well-being.
One of the most striking examples of Walt's complete control was the creation of a berm - a raised hill barrier - around the entire park. No one from the outside could see in, and no one from the inside could see out. When you are in Disneyland, you are truly in another world.
Today, Disneyland has added three more lands to the original five: Critter Country, Mickey's Toontown, and Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.
The ideal guest experience remains the same. Upon entering the park, each person is still greeted by Walt's original vision inscribed on a plaque: "Here You Leave Today and Enter the World of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy."
Imagineering and the psychology of park design
The greatest portmanteau ever is "turducken" (a combination of turkey, duck, and chicken, which I would really like to have for Thanksgiving one day).
The second greatest portmanteau ever is "Imagineering" (a combination of "imagination" and "engineering"). In 1952, Walt Disney borrowed the term — which had been coined by industrial giant Alcoa in the 1940s — to create Walt Disney Imagineering, the group responsible for bringing Disneyland to life.
There are now over 2,000 Imagineers creating the rides and experiences for the 85m+ people who visit Disney theme parks every year (nearly half of all global theme park visits and far ahead of second-place finisher Universal Studios).
In his 2016 book titled The Imagineering Pyramid, Louis Prosperi breaks down the Imagineering process and skillsets required. There are obviously the creative disciplines (illustration, art direction, writing, music and sound design, interior design, lighting design, and architecture). But equally important are the engineering experts (structural, mechanical, electrical, and industrial).
Below are 3 key concepts from the Imagineering process and how they influence guest psychology:
“Art of the Show”
Remember: Disney does theme parks, not amusement parks. Think of a stage play or a film scene. In either case, every prop and actor has a purpose. Similarly, Disney parks are designed as a show.
Prosperi writes about the Imagineering philosophy called “art of the show”, which calls for “design elements [to contribute] to the story or [help] to create a natural visual segue from one themed land to another.”
Here are some examples:
Engage all the senses: Film has sound and sight. But not taste, smell or touch. Disney parks engage the latter two senses in very strategic ways.
Smell: To utilize the power of smell — which is the sense most-connected to memory formation — a Disney Imagineer literally invented a machine called the Smellitzer to emit lab-created scents which pair with the surrounding attractions. Main Street smells like vanilla. The Pirates of the Caribbean ride smells like salty sea air. Pooh’s Adventure smells like honey. Haunted Mansion smells like burnt wood. The drink carts smell like me overpaying for a $10 bottle of water.
Touch: There are various ways to transition between scenes in a film (jump cut, blank screen etc.). At a Disney park, you can literally feel the ground change (eg. gravel to smooth cement) as you walk between different worlds.
Never show how the sausage is made: According to legend, Walt was once walking through Disneyland and saw a cowboy from Frontierland in the Tomorrowland area. He was pissed. Every world has to be consistent or the guest would lose the sense of magic. As a result, Disney World in Florida was built with 392,000 square feet of underground tunnels (utilidor system). This area was for employees — referred to as “cast members” (keeping with the idea of a “show”) — to change, eat, rest and take out garbage without disrupting the themed experiences.
Worlds kept separate: Each world at a Disney theme park is designed to prevent a guest from seeing or hearing another part of the park (similar to how the berm surrounding Disneyland prevents outsiders from looking in and vice versa). A great example: when the Tower of Terror was built in Florida, Imagineers made sure it wouldn't stand out when viewed from Epcot (the view shows the tower blending in with the Morocco pavilion).
A film technique that Walt really leaned on was set building. To quickly communicate a story or achieve a desired action, every building structure in Disneyland is built to a specific proportion (eg. 5/8ths of the real size):
Forced Perspective: Imagineers use this technique to make buildings appear larger and taller than they actually are. From a distance, Cinderella's Castle looks larger than life because the bricks at the top are smaller than those at the bottom.
Wayfinding: Disney utilizes large structures (Epcot, Magic Mountain, Cinderella's Castle) to draw guests' attention and builds roads along these lines of vision to move people around the park. Known as "weenies," these structures have to be both large enough to be seen and interesting enough to attract.
According to Prosperi, Walt always asked his team “how could we plus it?” Every part of the park could be made better and the process of “plussing” is used to constantly improve the experience.
The grass really is greener: Disney World's sidewalks have a reddish hue, which helps make the color of the grass "pop". This is because red and green are complementary colors (i.e. opposite ends of the color wheel), and the contrast makes both the sidewalk and grass appear brighter.
Accentuated sounds: The horses wear special horseshoes with a polyurethane coating, which makes a louder "clopping" sound when they walk down Main Street.
Before and after: While a Disneyland trip might only be a weekend, the experience lasts way longer. Disney hypes of anticipation of the trip by sending guests reminders on the lead-up to their arrival. And there are professional photographers all over the park to snap photos for long-lasting memories (PhotoPass lets you view the photos for free online … and you can literally just screen shot them if you don’t want to pay for high-res)
Small details: Look at the Cinderella statue in the left frame below. It looks normal from an adult's perspective (top). But from a child's lower perspective (bottom), Cinderella is wearing a crown.
Parks drive the Disney empire
The Walt Disney Company made ~$84B last year. However, the key components of the business are moving in very different directions:
1. Media & Entertainment — which includes the film, TV, studio and streaming lines — made up 66% ($55B) of the company’s revenue but only 34% ($4B) of its operating profit.
Linear TV vs. Streaming: Within this business segment, the TV operation (anchored by ESPN and live sports) is still spitting off tons of cash ($8B operating profits) but is in terminal decline as the cable TV bundle comes apart. Meanwhile, the direct-to-consumer streaming business (Disney+, Hulu) is growing but lost $4B in 2022.
2. Parks & Experiences — which includes cruises, live entertainment and theme parks where I go while very hungover — made up 34% ($29B) of revenue and 66% ($8B) of the operating profit. Within parks, the main revenue lines are admissions, merchandise, F&B and resorts (hotels). Of course, the best IP from the media business finds tons of monetization opportunities within the Parks via ride attractions and merchandise.
To summarize: linear TV is still a profitable venture, but in a declining industry to the point that Disney CEO Bob Iger recently said cable "may not be core [to the company]" and he would consider spinning off ESPN. Direct-to-consumer streaming is the future, but it is also a money-draining investment, and the current Hollywood actor/writer strike is largely about how to divide the streaming revenue.
So, Disney's 12 parks - stretching from California to Florida, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai - are currently the most stable part of the business.
To be sure, the Parks division certainly has its problems. A culture war battle with the Governor of Florida has turned off many guests. It has been a struggle to get attendance back to pre-COVID levels. And the price of admission has increased over the past few years.
On the last point, I couldn’t help my Twitter addiction and posted this meme while shopping in the Emporium at Disneyland.
In response to the meme, an industry insider sent me a message and said that the company had a concept known as "The Disney Wallet," which gives a rough estimate of how much a guest will spend at the park.
One interesting part of Disney's research is that the amount of money a person spends to enter the park (e.g. admission and hotel costs) has little effect on how much they spend inside the park (e.g. merchandise, food and beverage). This means the company can upsell as much as possible even before guests arrive without risking people spending less on items such as $10 waters (as a way to offset the high admission price).
Two recent developments suggest the up-sell is alive and well:
Admission prices are really up: According to Juxtaposed Research, the cost for a family of four to do a 4-day Disney Park trip has more than doubled from $1,300 in 2019 to $2,720 in 2023 due to inflation and price hikes on tickets.
Genie+: In Q4 2021, Disney released an add-on for its app called Genie+, which costs $25 per guest. The service allows guests to get priority access for popular rides and reserve times for various attractions. Now, more than 50% of guests are paying for Genie+. If everyone ends up paying, though, how much of a priority can they possibly be?
An interesting tension with Genie+ is that it helps people efficiently plan their days and gives the park a lever to move people from high to low traffic areas. But the Genie+ also means that you are mediating your park experience through a smartphone, which is like everything else you do all day (not exactly how Walt planned it).
Nothing brings you back to reality like the perception of price gouging, though. A scroll through TripAdvisor reviews for Disneyland reveals that high prices, along with long lines and broken rides, are the most common complaints. These types of complaints can chip away at the experience of being in another world.
With the media business in such flux — Linear TV is declining while streaming is bleeding cash — Parks is the most logical part of the Disney Empire to milk for cash.
Could these financial pressures eventually erode the magical experience?
Back to the review of my Disneyland trip.
It was hot. There were long lines. The park tried to sell me something every ten steps. And like a sucker, I paid for most of the stuff on offer (the corn dogs do slap).
But but but! I really enjoyed the day and my kid can’t stop talking about it.
My favourite part was Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Disney spent $1B to create the new land and it has all the hallmarks of Peak Walt and great Imagineering:
Build your own story: The land is based on a lesser-known Star Wars tale, so that guests can carve out their own adventures (rather than re-living Luke Skywalker's narrative arc). Of the eight lands inside Disneyland, Star Wars feels the most secluded, with only a few ways to get in and out. The experience is really like being in a space smuggler's outpost.
Everything on-brand: All of the characters — Stormtroopers, Imperial Officers, and Rebels — stayed in character (a team of Stormtroopers asked me if I had seen any suspicious activity and I told them "Sorry, snitches get stitches"). Even the commercial items were more discreet than in the rest of the park (Coca-Cola designed special beverage bottles to make them look Star Wars-appropriate).
Outstanding set designs: I didn't do the rides because the lines were too long. But the real-size Millennium Falcon, X-Wing, and Tie Fighter spacecrafts were sick. To recreate the same atmosphere from the bar scene in the first Star Wars, Disney built a beautiful space-themed cantina (which is one of only two places where you can buy alcohol at Disneyland).
Every detail was spot on. Bravo to the Imagineers for this one.
Disney, You got me. Just like you got my parents 25 years ago, when they brought our family of six to Disneyland. And just like you got my 5-year son, way ahead of schedule.
Now that I have gone as both a child and parent, I can say that Walt Disney’s plan to make something for the entire family definitely works.
I think the power of nostalgia will drive Park attendance for at least one more generation. It is not just the nostalgia of Disney IP, either. It is the nostalgia of “we’re going to Disneyland” itself.
But how many 5-year olds will care in 30 years? The entertainment options for children are now infinite while the Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars content machines seem to be overextended and sputtering.
For the foreseeable future, Disneyland still has something for everyone. Just don’t go while hungover.
Today’s SatPost is brought to you by Bearly.AI
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Links and Memes
Some more great content for your weekend:
The world’s best sound logos: My former colleague Mark Dent at The Hustle wrote an article about the world’s most famous sonic logos like Netflix’s “Ba-Dum” and Ricola’s “RI-CO-LAAAAA”.
James Cameron deep dive: David at Founder’s Podcast with an amazing 75-minute podcast about James Cameron and what sets the famous director apart (an amazing Cameron quote which explains why he loves filming in water: “I’m attracted to difficult…I go straight to difficult…there are lots of smart, really gifted, really talented filmmakers out there that just can’t do the difficult stuff…so that gives me a tactical advantage.”)
Stonks: Fast Company on “How Palantir stock developed a weird, passionate, meme-crazy fan base”
Christopher Nolan stunts: Oppenheimer is out this weekend. I’ll be doing a date night with my wife next week to watch it (no chance I’m watching Barbie). As many have joked about, Nolan recreated an atomic bomb explosion without using CGI for the film. One of my most viral Twitter threads is about the 6 other times Nolan has used practical effects instead of CGI for wild stunts.
…and here them fire tweets.
Finally, this next tweet explains my entire 5-year stint in Montreal, where I did my undergrad at McGill University.